Each Lent begins with the same psalm at Ash Wednesday Mass: Psalm 51, known as the Miserere. Its first words are, “Have mercy on me, O Lord. In Latin, Miserere means “mercy.” The Lamb of God” prayer at Mass, asks, “Have mercy on us” or Miserere nobis in Latin.”
While all 150 psalms are traditionally credited to King David, not all were written by this poet king. However, Psalm 51 comes directly from David’s personal history and is unquestionably his.
The psalm records David’s feelings after being confronted by God’s prophet, Nathan. Nathan accused David of causing the death of Uriah the Hittite and taking Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, as his own. David was “called out” by God: “You are the man! Thus says the Lord God of Israel: … Why have you despised the Lord and done what is evil in his sight?” (2 Sam 12: 7-9).
David accepted blame: “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Sam 12:13).
The Miserere is believed to have sprung from David’s heart after this incident — and the death of his child that followed.
“Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness,” it reads. “In your compassion, blot out my offense.” (v. 3). The psalm continues for 21 verses, beseeching the Lord’s help and proclaiming David’s need for mercy.
Admitting his guilt and his need for God’s mercy makes David a model for us as we prepare for the penitential season of Lent.
Graziano Marcheschi, executive director for University Ministry at Saint Xavier University In Chicago, reflected on this psalm for the U.S. Catholic bishops. Marcheschi noted that, “It is the sentiment King David expresses here that assured his greatness, that set him apart from his predecessor, Saul, and that enables him to stand tall among Israel’s great heroes despite the grave sin that sits at the heart of this lament. … King David does two things at once: admit his sinfulness and rely on God’s mercy. He doesn’t rely on previous good deeds or on any extenuating circumstances. He is guilty, and he knows only God’s mercy can save him.”
In a scriptural commentary on Psalm 51, the U.S. bishops’ conference noted its interlocking parts: “The first part (verses 3-10) asks deliverance from sin, not just a past act but its emotional, physical and social consequences. The second part ( verses 11-19) seeks something more profound than wiping the slate clean: nearness to God, living by the spirit of God.”
Wiping the slate clean is a concept any child who has used a white board understands. Turning to the Jewish tradition for insight adds even more depth. Rabbinic teaching (dating back at least 900 years), called the Midrash, explains this psalm’s fourth verse in a novel way. The verse reads, “Thoroughly wash away my guilt and from my sin cleanse me.” (These are is the same words the priest says at Mass as he washes his hands before the consecration.)
The Midrash interprets the pleas (both verses 3 and 4) as like those of a man with a wounded hand going to a doctor for help. The doctor notes that, while the wound is large, the patient’s wealth is not. The patient persists, promising to pay what he can. But here is the twist: he also tells the doctor to pay the rest. This, the Midrash teaches, is how we should approach God’s mercy. Ask for help and expect God to pay the cost as well. As we know, God did pay the cost — through Jesus.
The Miserere is one of seven “penitential psalms.” They are also called “psalms of confession,” and often prayed during Lent. For example, Psalm 51 is part of morning prayer every Lenten Friday.
The seven penitential psalms are 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143. Like the Miserere, some are known by their first words. For example, Psalm 130 is called “De profundis” in Latin because it begins, “Out of the depths, I cry to you, O Lord!”
Since Pope Innocent III in the early 13th century, these psalms have been part of a prayer ritual during Lent. All seven may be prayed in one day, or one prayed on each day of the week. If that is too hard, then one of the seven is prayed on each of the Fridays of the season.
God does not seek vengeance for our sins, but God does seek justice. And justice both acknowledges sin and desires to make things whole. Rabbi Eric Levy teaches the Torah (Jewish Scripture) to non-Jews. He explains that the Talmud (the main source of Jewish law) uses Psalm 51’s fifth verse (My sin is ever before me) “to recommend eternal vigilance in areas in which we may have previously stumbled.”
Two popes’ take
St. John Paul II, in a 1997 Ash Wednesday homily, noted that “with the words of the Miserere psalm, the sinner not only accuses himself of his own sins, but at the same time begins a new creative journey, the way of conversion. To be converted means to enter into deep intimacy with God.”
In 2016, Pope Francis also reflected on Psalm 51. He said that “whoever prays … asks to be granted grace and mercy. … (God) does not hide the sin but destroys and blots it out. … not as they do at the dry cleaners when we take a suit and they remove a stain. No! God blots out our sin from the very root, completely!”
As we enter Lent on this penitential note, these popes remind us that we are starting a journey leading to conversion, purity and intimacy with God. It’s something King David knew. And it made him great in God’s eyes.
Sources: Catholic Encyclopedia; vatican.va; usccb.org; Dictionary of the Liturgy; Catechism of the Catholic Church; The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia; The Jerome Biblical Commentary; A Catholic Prayer Book; Catholic News Agency; Midrash Teheilim at virtualjewishlibrary.org; CatholiCity.com; fisheaters.com; thecatholicthing.org; and matsati.com